Journalists and historians tend to overestimate the impact of political events while underestimating the power of cultural trends.
For example, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence as America’s founding document. That magnificent document is an eloquent statement of ideals that we have spent more than two centuries trying to achieve. But it did not inspire 13 colonies to seek independence from Great Britain.
In fact, it was written 15 months (SET ITAL) after (END ITAL) the War of Independence got started. Before the politicians of that era acted, most of the British Governors had already been driven from the land. The Declaration was not important because it brought about change. It was important because it formally confirmed a change that had already taken place.
While pundits act as if politicians lead nations, they don’t. The culture leads and the politicians lag behind.
That truth was evident last week when the British voted to leave the European Union. Brexit did not bring about a change, it confirmed a change that had already taken place.
The change was driven by two major cultural trends. The first was a growing disenchantment with the EU among the British people. They never fully bought into the idea of a European super-government and were not happy with the bureaucrats in Brussels. Even many of those who voted to remain wanted the EU to make major changes. Voter disenchantment was so strong that even an enormous scare-mongering campaign from political leaders around the globe was unable to turn the tide.
The second major trend behind Brexit is global in its impact. I call it the Great Turnaround.
From the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution until the 1970s, just about everything got bigger, more centralized and more homogenized. That was true for companies, cities, countries and just about every imaginable form of organization.
After the ’70s, however, the digital revolution pushed cultural trends in the opposite direction with everything becoming more niche-oriented, decentralized and personalized.
This change puts “unprecedented power in the hands of every individual,” according to Harvard’s Nicco Mele. It’s “a radical redistribution of power that our traditional institutions don’t and perhaps can’t understand.” As if that wasn’t enough, he adds, “Radical connectivity is toxic to traditional power structures.”
Traditional power structures — like the EU — were happy to follow society at large when it led to centralizing government power in the hands of bureaucrats. They are not nearly as enthusiastic about the ongoing decentralization that is now shifting power to the people.
The unwillingness of political and corporate elites to follow where the people are leading has created political conflict and instability. It’s a conflict over who should decide — unaccountable political elites or everyday citizens who have to live with the consequences of their own decisions?
Brexit did more than confirm British unhappiness with the European Union. It also reminded us — in a dramatic fashion — that the culture leads and politicians lag behind. It gives us hope that the global trend to decentralization will shift even more power to ever more people. In the United States, families, communities, and local governments will be empowered at the expense of federal bureaucrats. Around the world, elite control will continue to unravel.
The political class will hate it, but politicians don’t lead. That’s good news for the rest of us.